Category Archives: nostalgia

Passing Along Manual Life Skills – Another Lost Tradition?

Sighting down the edge of a board for bow, crown, twist, and warp is a skill all carpenters should be able to do. How many of today’s carpenter’s know which way to orient the crown of the studs when framing up a wall?

Passing along skills from generation to generation is a strong theme in An Irish Miracle. As a ten-year-old boy on an Ohio family farm in 1955, Alex is excited to learn how to weld from his father, Jake, so he can fix a broken plow. An older Alastar passes along the skills of caring for horses to the younger men at Glencoe Stables.

The tradition of passing along manual skills takes many routes, a few of which are:

  • Father to son
  • Mother to daughter
  • Journeyman to apprentice
  • Mentor to fatherless child
  • Shop class

Sadly, many high schools across America have discontinued shop classes, as more and more students prepare to become “knowledge workers”. (Search eBay for woodworking and other machine tools, and you’ll find many for sale from schools.) As Matthew Crawford points out in Shop Class as Soulcraft, the separation of thinking and doing is a misguided notion. Encyclopedic knowledge and critical thinking guide the hands of plumbers, carpenters, and motorcycle mechanics, to name only a few of the highly skilled and noble trades.

Bought with his own money, my son and I dragged his first car home with a chain and slowly worked together to rebuild it and make it road-worthy again. From the rebuilt carb to the new exhaust system, repacked wheel bearings with new ten-hole rims, and of course, a new head unit complete with amp and subwoofer, he was proud of that little Mustang and proud of his newly acquired skills. Much credit goes to my wife for pointing out that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pass some skills along, father to son.

Take a few moments and list the manual skills one of your parents or a favorite uncle had, and then circle the ones you don’t possess. Here’s a short list about my dad. He hated to pay someone else to do anything he even might be able to do himself.

  • Welding (at work and at home)
  • Butchering (as in the family meat-packing business)
  • Carpentry (he built the house I grew up in, and several others)
  • Woodworking (he made a lot of our furniture)
  • Hunting (mostly bird, when he was younger)
  • Gardening (usually started with a pick-up truck load of chicken manure)
  • Car restoration and maintenance (he and my brother restored a 1966 Corvette)
  • Mechanical work (he fixed appliances and built us go-carts and mini-bikes)
  • Schnauzer grooming (the apple seldom falls far from the tree)
  • Knitting (yup, and he taught my mother, too)

Pop building a storage shed out near the garden. For some reason, we always called it “The Cottage”.

I could take a pretty good turn at most of these, although my welding and butchering would be pretty ugly, and I’m afraid I never found much call for knitting myself. (I personally don’t hunt for sport, but if it ever comes down to Bambi or my family going hungry, Bambi’s a goner.)

Craftsmanship is both the execution of a skill, and the desire to do something well for its own sake. Producing something physical, with hands guided by the mind, is extremely satisfying, particularly in a world where life is seemingly lived more and more passively . . . and more and more dependently.

What new manual skills would you like to learn? Even more important, what manual skills will you pass along?

Love of Countryside

Young Robbie in Ohio

I was raised in rural Ohio. It wasn’t a farm, but it was a big enough plot to have a large garden with room left over for pickup football games on crisp fall days. The maple trees added an element of suspense, and someone always went home a bloody hero. There was a little creek that trickled through the bottom of the property until a few days of hard rain drove it out of its banks and across the flood plain. As a boy, I couldn’t seem to go near that creek without getting wet, either jumping across it, falling off the random toppled tree that sometimes bridged it, or just sitting beside it. That five-acre plot has been in my family’s name for over 150 years now. Thankfully, it still is.

Countryside in the Connemara District of Western Ireland

Countryside in Western Ireland

My father’s family traces its roots back to Ireland, around the time of the Great Famine that forced so many people to leave their land in search of a place to make a new life. I had the good fortune to visit Ireland over a decade ago, and I fell in love with the people and the countryside there. It was easy to see why many of those Irish farmers chose Ohio as their new land. Whether I was gazing across green pastures in the Connemara district, hiking through the clints and grykes of the limestone pavement of the Burren, or exploring the ruins of Hore Abbey near The Rock of Cashel, the Irish countryside whispered to my heart. It told tales of clans and kings battling over the land—of farmers and shepherds and their families scratching out a life in that harsh, beautiful land.

Ruins of Hore Abbey

In these modern times, it seems so many people have never experienced having ties to any land. Growing up in cities of granite and asphalt, moving from temporary space to temporary space . . . never having a creek of their own to fall in or to daydream beside . . . how can they feel anchored—grounded—never having a place to put down roots? It disquiets me just to think about it.

One of the central themes of An Irish Miracle is a family’s ties to their land . . . and the lengths they will go to when those ties are threatened.

Simpler Times, Simpler Places

Ohio Farm Horses

An Irish Miracle spans over a half a century and two countries. With all the strife in the real world today, the stories in it offer a respite, a brief glimpse of simpler times and simpler places.

Born in 1945, life for twin boys on an Ohio family farm is filled with hard work. The growing seasons mean plowing, planting and worrying about the rain. Only after the day’s work is there time for pick-up games, pony rides, and swimming. When the harvest season begins, daylight is reserved for bringing in the crops and baling the neighbor’s hay for spending money. The first day of a new school year means the ground will soon be frozen solid.

Their close-knit family is happy and secure, but with one ill-fated decision by their father, an old-school farmer and a war veteran, life for the boys begins to change. When the first Irish-Catholic president is assassinated, life for the whole family changes. After the arrival of two draft notices, the twin brothers set out on separate paths for the first time in their lives, one to the jungles of Vietnam and one to the quiet countryside of western Ireland.

Were they really simpler times and simpler places? I think so, but perhaps you should decide for yourself.